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How to Break the Cycle of Procrastination

Have you ever delayed completing a task simply because you lacked the motivation to handle it? Well, you're not alone. Procrastination is a common behaviour observed in nearly everyone worldwide.

Procrastination is a reflection of our inherent human tendency to prioritise immediate gratification over future concerns. When we procrastinate, we intentionally postpone a specific task and the negative emotions it may evoke, such as stress, boredom, or self-doubt.

While procrastination may provide temporary relief by allowing us to avoid a frustrating job or unpleasant feelings, we can't ignore the task indefinitely. Eventually, the urgency to complete it resurfaces, and we find ourselves back in the same predicament.

It's quite normal to hesitate when faced with uncomfortable situations, like writing an essay, scheduling a doctor's appointment, or having a difficult conversation with a partner.

However, chronic procrastination is a different story altogether. When procrastination becomes our default approach, it can start to negatively impact our mental and emotional well-being, not to mention our ability to accomplish tasks.

Continue reading to discover more about the potential causes of chronic procrastination (hint: it's not laziness) and find some helpful tips for effectively tackling it.

Common signs of procrastination

Engaging in occasional procrastination may not necessarily be detrimental, but it typically doesn't provide much benefit either.

Who hasn't saved the most unpleasant tasks for last or postponed them to another day? Or managed to meet important deadlines just in the nick of time, like filing your tax return on 5th April?

However, when procrastination becomes a recurring pattern in your daily life, it can lead to various problems.

There are several key indicators that can help you identify chronic procrastination, such as:

  • Frequently procrastinating on a weekly, or even daily, basis

  • Consistently struggling to meet deadlines

  • Delaying tasks in multiple areas of your life, not just at work but also at home and with friends

  • Getting easily distracted

  • Feeling like procrastination is negatively impacting your relationships with loved ones

  • Finding it difficult to admit your tendency to procrastinate to yourself or others (You may not outright lie about it, but you often come up with plenty of reasons to justify the delays.)

  • Filling your time with trivial or less important tasks as a means of avoidance

  • Experiencing heightened stress due to the overwhelming number of tasks and its impact on your sleep or physical health

  • Struggling to overcome procrastination even when facing undesirable consequences at school, work, or home.

The link between procrastination and emotional regulation

Procrastination and its connection to emotional regulation has been supported by research findings.

In simple terms, procrastination does not occur because of laziness or lack of productivity, nor is it solely due to a lack of knowledge or skills (although self-doubt can certainly play a role). Instead, it arises from the anticipation of emotional distress.

Perhaps you have already experienced first-hand the annoyance and frustration associated with a particular task, and you want to avoid repeating that experience. Alternatively, you may have preconceived notions about how difficult or dreadful a chore or assignment will be.

As a result, you choose to delay the task, promising yourself that you will tackle it later when you feel more capable of managing those emotional challenges.

At times, it is evident why the distress arises. For example, you postpone making a phone call to schedule a doctor’s appointment because you are certain that you have something wrong, which causes anxiety about confirmation that there’s an issue during the appointment.

Or, after an argument with your sister, you avoid calling her because you know you need to admit your mistake and apologise.

However, identifying the sources of emotional distress can be more challenging, particularly when they stem from ongoing or deeper-rooted emotional turmoil.

Take, for example, the situation where you have repeatedly made a commitment to your partner that you would go through the boxes containing items from your teenage years that are stored in the loft. However, something always seems to hinder you from starting the task.

The size of the task is not the obstacle, as you only have a few boxes to sort through, and you typically find enjoyment in organising things.

Upon delving deeper into your emotions, you come to the realisation that you have never confronted the lingering pain associated with your teenage years. You anticipate that many of your belongings and mementos will stir up feelings of awkwardness and discomfort.

The link between procrastination and mental health symptoms

The underlying causes of procrastination can sometimes extend beyond difficulties in emotional regulation.

For instance, if you experience anxiety, you may find yourself spending a significant amount of time worrying about the specific requirements of tasks or feeling apprehensive about potential mishaps. These fears can undoubtedly contribute to delays in getting started.

Furthermore, the connection between anxiety disorders and perfectionism can also contribute to procrastination. When you believe that you cannot achieve perfection in a task, the anxiety surrounding it may lead you to continually postpone it rather than attempting it imperfectly.

Depression, which often depletes energy levels and undermines self-worth, can also be associated with procrastination. In such cases, you may neglect certain responsibilities due to a lack of motivation or doubts about your abilities.

Inattention symptoms of ADHD, such as distractibility, difficulties in concentration, or periods of hyperfocus, can also contribute to procrastination.

The cycle of procrastination

Procrastination operates on an interesting principle: the negative emotions associated with a task don't disappear when you avoid it. Instead, they intensify and grow rapidly.

Consider the scenario where you postpone creating a work presentation. You have a strong desire to impress your boss, but you are anxious about meeting their high expectations.

As time goes by and you continue to delay, you find yourself with less and less time to complete the task. With the deadline looming, your doubts about your ability to deliver a successful presentation increase. Moreover, you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work involved, and the stress of potentially not finishing it on time adds to your anxiety.

Although you are aware that you have trapped yourself in a difficult situation, the temporary relief of avoiding the project becomes more appealing than facing the actual work. Paradoxically, this fleeting sense of tranquillity reinforces the cycle of procrastination.

Now, take a moment to reflect: Do you genuinely feel calm in this situation? Most likely, you have noticed a persistent undercurrent of anxiety permeating your thoughts, both during your waking hours and even in your sleep.

This is where the problem lies. Procrastination creates a cycle that is challenging to break, as the immediate gratification of postponing a task strengthens the desire to repeat the behaviour, even though it ultimately leads to more complications.

Over time, a habit of procrastination can further complicate the emotional concerns that initially triggered it.

Consider this example:

In a work setting, you want to present a new proposal to an important client. However, due to concerns about your ability to effectively persuade them of its value, you choose to delay submitting the proposal.

As the deadline approaches, you hastily assemble a presentation, but unfortunately, it fails to impress the client. They decide to pass on the project.

The fear of failure played a significant role in your decision to procrastinate, and the actual failure exacerbates your negative emotions. Instead of taking the opportunity to revise and improve the proposal for another attempt, self-doubt begins to creep in, further diminishing your motivation to undertake the necessary work.

With the passage of time, chronic procrastination and the repetitive cycle it generates can result in various negative outcomes, including:

  • Increased stress levels

  • Heightened anxiety

  • Development or worsening of depression

  • Feelings of shame and guilt

  • Decreased sense of self-worth

  • Heightened insecurity

  • Job-related overwhelm and increased risk of burnout

  • Conflict within relationships

  • Potential negative impact on physical health

It's important to note that these are potential consequences that can arise from long-term patterns of procrastination.

How to manage procrastination

Implementing the strategies below can assist you in breaking free from the cycle of procrastination, even if it has become deeply ingrained in your habits.

1. Extend forgiveness and compassion to yourself

By forgiving yourself for past instances of procrastination, you can reduce the likelihood of falling into the same pattern in the future.

Similar to extending forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, self-forgiveness enables you to release the grip of past events and move forward.

Instead of being hard on yourself, reassure yourself that it's okay to make mistakes.

Practicing self-compassion is also instrumental in alleviating the harsh self-criticism and self-blame that often accompany procrastination.

Rather than fixating on your perceived shortcomings, offer yourself comforting words, such as: "I’m facing some challenges right now, but I’m doing my best," or "Completing that assignment is quite stressful. But this is just a first draft, and I can improve it later."

2. Challenge false beliefs

Cognitive distortions, which refer to patterns of irrational and inaccurate thinking, often contribute to the tendency to procrastinate.

Here are a few examples:

Catastrophising: Blowing things out of proportion and imagining worst-case scenarios. For instance, after an argument, thinking, "That argument last night was awful. They must hate me now.”

Overgeneralisation: Believing that poor performance on a previous task automatically means you will perform poorly on a similar task. For instance, thinking, "I did really poorly on that last project, so I won't do any better on this one."

Mental filtering: Focusing solely on negative aspects or moments of perceived failure while ignoring positive aspects. For example, after a date, forgetting about the good chemistry and mutual interests and dwelling on a single awkward moment, thinking, "They must think I'm so dumb," and consequently postponing contacting them again.

Discounting the positive: Disregarding positive feedback or attributing it to luck rather than recognising your own capabilities. This mindset can lead to worry and procrastination. For example, thinking, "I only received praise from my supervisor because I got lucky with easy tasks. I'm afraid I'll make a mistake on the next task, so I'll put it off.

To challenge these cognitive distortions, consider alternative explanations and reframe your thoughts: "Perhaps they also feel remorseful about the argument. They might be hesitant to call me too."

Additionally, list factual evidence that contradicts the distorted beliefs: "I haven't received any negative feedback, and my supervisor expressed trust in me to handle more challenging tasks. This indicates that I have the necessary skills and can rely on myself to continue performing well."

3. Take things one step at a time

Rather than overwhelming yourself by contemplating the entirety of the remaining workload, shift your focus to the next immediate step.

For instance, while conducting research for a project, you can tell yourself, "Once I get together some useful information, I can proceed to create an outline." At that point, refrain from concerning yourself with writing the introduction.

By adopting this approach, you may discover that while working on the outline, you naturally generate the perfect introductory statement without even exerting much effort.

4. Create barriers and rewards

Implementing barriers and rewards can be beneficial for overcoming procrastination.

If you find yourself frequently reaching for your phone instead of focusing on work, consider turning it off and placing it out of sight before commencing your tasks.

Additionally, it is essential to reward yourself for your accomplishments. Once you have made significant progress, take a break to engage in activities that bring you joy, such as watching a funny video or catching up with friends.

Shifting your mindset from punishment to reward can be motivating. Instead of saying, "If I don't work out tonight, I can't watch my favourite TV show," try a more positive approach like, "I'll go for a jog after work, and then I'll treat myself to an episode of the show before bedtime."

When to seek help

If you've been struggling with chronic procrastination, seeking additional support can be crucial in breaking the habit.

Consider reaching out to a counsellor if procrastination:

  • Impacts your performance at school or work.

  • Causes difficulties in your personal relationships.

  • Results in feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, or exacerbates existing symptoms.

A counsellor can assist you in identifying and exploring emotional triggers that contribute to procrastination. They can also provide valuable insights into any underlying mental health issues that may be fuelling this behaviour.

In counselling, you can learn effective strategies to challenge negative self-talk and reframe unhelpful thought patterns.

Ultimately, understanding the root causes of procrastination is key to finding effective coping mechanisms. If you're unsure where to begin, don't hesitate to seek guidance and support from a counsellor or therapist.


Sally Edwards Counselling

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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